Taking old school approach to old books
Narcissa Sun, 21, a student from China at the University of Illinois, learns the specialized craft of repairing fragile books
Narcissa Sun is something of a throwback. She enjoys knitting and works in a library. And her job — mending old books at a major American university library — literally goes back in time.
The repair of old books has been a delicate issue for library systems that have thousands of aged masterpieces among their stacks. A librarian needs not only enough patience to take care of the fragile books, but the patience and passion to spend hours in the library day in and day out.
Sun works at the campus library system of the University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign, one of the largest public academic collections in the world. Among universities in North America, it has the second-largest collection of books, after Harvard University. The university has more than 20 departmental libraries and divisions holding more than 24 million titles, including more than 12 million print volumes.
Sun, 21, recently finished her third year at the university and has been working at the Oak Street Library Facility, one of the main libraries in the system, for the past year. A cinema studies major, Sun said it was a coincidence that she became a librarian.
“Last year, when I was considering a part-time job in my third year, the library happened to have an open position,” she told China Daily. “I was thinking, ‘ Why can’t I just take a try?’ so I applied for the interview at the library.”
The interview was not easy, said Sun, as she had to take several “odd” quizzes, including recognizing the correct direction of white paper, testing her slicing ability with a knife, and making a box with paper.
Thanks to her knowledge of creating traditional Chinese paintings, Sun was able to handle sensitive, thin paper well, and she was accepted as a librarian to work with the general collections in the library.
At first, the tasks were difficult and complicated, but Sun said she had a caring supervisor who taught her how to use a scalpel and other tools to repair old hardcover books and fragile pages. Sometimes, a book that she had mended needed to be reworked at the supervisor’s request.
Books at the Oak Street Library Facility are divided into general and special collections. The books in the general collection can be borrowed by the public after repairs by the librarian. To mend a general collection book, a librarian usually spends 15 minutes to two hours on it, depending on the extent of damage. And after one night of stoving, the books are returned to the stacks.
However, for the special collections, the repair time takes up to two hours. Sun is working with the general collection’s old covers, or spines. She said she is looking forward to repairing older books.
Sun works in the library 10 hours a week, and usually more than two hours at a sitting.
“I really enjoy repairing old books, especially those which were heavily damaged,” Sun said. “I feel a great achievement when an old book looks good after hours of work from my hands.”
Born Sun Weina in Zhenjiang, a small city in Jiangsu province on the east coast of China, Sun came to the United States at 18 to attend the university. She said that living in America on her own has helped her make more friends and grow.
She also said she doesn’t feel as homesick foreign students might.
“One of the reasons is my life is enriched after I took the job as a librarian,” she said. “One will not feel homesick when surrounded by interesting jobs and friends.”
Sun posted about her experience on Chinese social networks, and suddenly it became a trending topic. On WeChat and Salonwith.com, as other her age more than 20,000 read about Sun’s work and left more than 100 comments. Some of them had just learned about working in a library and requested more pictures of her workspace.
A librarian job in China is usually a low-paying one. Sun said she hopes that more Chinese people, especially youngsters, can be introduced to the job.
old books does not only mean a lot to the library, but to the whole country as well,” she said.
One netizen shared those sentiments: “Although I haven’t thought out any questions, I still wanna click the LIKE button for Sun. After all, [those] who made human history and culture pass from generations to generations [are] those who read books and treasure books.”
Narcissa Sun stands in front of the high book stacks at the Oak Street Library Facility at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
where old books are repaired at the Oak Street Library Facility at the University of Illinois.
The tools that Narcissa Sun uses to repair old books.
A desk is dedicated for working on special collections.